This post is about the unique spiritual challenges of depression, and how I modified my practice to overcome those challenges. I am not a Psychiatrist. I do not have the letters MD after my name in any way shape or form, but I wanted to take some time to share what helped me, and how this experience impacted my practice.
Backstory: about a year and a half ago, I underwent fertility treatments. It triggered a depressive episode which lasted for the better part of a year. Depression has many different factors which contribute to it. As a person who suffered from major depression in childhood, I already had the predisposition. Apparently pummeling my endocrine system with mega-doses of synthetic hormones wasn’t the best thing for my overall well being.
Depression is not just feeling “down” or “sad” about something. I experienced it as a pervasive exhaustion, a low level body ache that sapped me of my will to do things. It is numbness that dulls emotional reactions and ambitions. It causes difficulties concentrating. It makes you forgetful. It feels like your thoughts are covered in molasses. Things you usually enjoy bring no happiness, beauty is less beautiful, colors are less colorful, pleasure is less pleasurable.
When you are in crisis, it’s the absolute worst time to get cut off from your spiritual source of strength. At that time, you need your gods more than ever (provided that you believe in gods that care about you), and if you are a magician like I am, you need magic to smooth things over until you are better. However, depression can destroy your self-confidence. It can make you feel unworthy of love, or even of help. In short, it can make magick and mysticism difficult.
Because it must be said: part of what I am going to discuss in this post is alternative and magical treatments for depression. If you suffer from depression, or if you suffer from any mental illness, do not stop working with mental health professionals. Depression kills. Especially when people are just starting to feel better, they can become suicidal. Work with your doctors, even if you are pursuing alternative treatments at the same time. Do not discontinue medication except under the care of a professional.
Realizing That It’s Depression
When depression follows an illness, or a course of medical treatments that make you feel ill, it can be hard to discern between “I’m sick” and “I’m depressed.”
That’s because illness provokes a response from your immune system. Immune response can come in many forms, but a very common one is inflammation. When you are sick, or when you have inflammation for other reasons, such as injury, the main thing your body wants you to do is lie still and heal. If you are feeling your usual bouncy self, that’s unlikely to happen. So instead, your body slows down. You feel lethargic and miserable. You want to stay put. And that is exactly what depression can feel like, minus the broken leg or runny nose.
If you feel like you are coming down with a cold, but there is no cold, and it goes on for months, you might be suffering from depression. Likewise, if your feeling of “being sick” persists long after the Doctors tell you that your illness has cleared up, you might be suffering from depression. If your whole body aches and your Doctors can’t find a cause, if you are sleeping longer and waking up tired, there is a good chance that you are suffering from depression. If you’re having persistent chest pains, and your Cardiologist gives you a clean bill of health, that, too, might be depression.
Go see a Psychiatrist. A good Psychiatrist will take an exhaustive inventory of your mental and physical symptoms, and will not diagnose you with something you don’t have.
Getting Over Your Fear of Psychiatric Medicine
Articles about bad doctors, big pharma, and medication-related conspiracy theories are the clickiest. Particularly in the Pagan community, it’s easy to find memes to indicate that psych meds will destroy your magical soul, and an equal amount of “pull yourself by your own boot straps” rhetoric.
When you are suffering from major depression, you might have no bootstraps to pull yourself up by.
Doctors are not monsters, and depression is not different from any other kind of physical ailment. So, rather than waiting for the sky to open and for a choir of angels to descend and miraculously cure me, I went to go see a Doctor. And yes, I took psych meds. They were certainly not the complete solution for me, but they did give me some bootstraps to pull on.
Going on medication for depression did not in any way negatively impact my psychic senses. It did not make me less creative, or less sensitive. If your medication causes you to feel like this, talk to you doctor. Psychiatrists now understand that spirituality has a neurological basis, and you can, in broad terms, say that you feel “less spiritual” or you can say that you feel less imaginative, and they will very often be willing to guide you to a medicine which will impact you less.
Some Pagans and Polytheists do avoid mental health professionals because they fear that they will be medicated just to change their belief system. Few Psychiatrists have any interest in delving into your beliefs or personal life. You get 15 minutes. You relate your symptoms. They make a recommendation for this drug and that therapy. If your Gastroenterologist suggests that Jesus will cure your IBS, get a new Gastroenterologist. If your Cardiologist recommends Synagogue instead of beta-blockers, fire them. If your Psychiatrist brings up the topic of religion? Run. They are a quack.
Lastly, yes, you can get care even if you have no money and no insurance. Here is a resource list. Especially useful is this service which can help you get free or cheap medication even without insurance.
Adapting Daily Practice
My usual practice is highly Ceremonial. There are purifications, and invocations, and glyphs and tech and more tech, and procedures and, and, and…
For a while, I withdrew from my practice because I just did not have the spoons. Then, I started to feel badly about myself because I had withdrawn from my practice.
Something I learned early on in my practice was that little actions done consistently added up to more than the occasional monumental effort. So I asked myself: what can I do everyday?
When you are full of energy and activity, and pouring a little wine out for your gods is no big deal, you might have to do a little more than that you express how you feel for them. When the process of locating a clean glass and a corkscrew is a monumental effort, it means more.
To restore connection, and confidence, I started a practice of silent bedtime prayers. These were informal.
“Hey, I’m thinking about you. I haven’t forgotten you. I feel overwhelmed and tired a lot right now. I really wish I had more to say. I love you. I hope you are okay.”
“How was your day? If you get a chance, you can stop by and maybe tell me about it. I like hearing about your adventures.”
“I’m going to daydream a bit before sleeping. Want to join me?”
“I’m not in the mood to talk. But come sit with me?”
Taking your medication can also be a sacrament — and you ought to be doing that daily.
Adapting Group Practice
Somehow, I managed to still run group rituals. I’m not sure how. Looking back on it, it seems like nothing short of a miracle. I chalk it up to falling into a weekly routine, delegation, and actually finding the rituals we did to be beneficial. There are a host of things that you can do to modify group ritual to prevent making your depression worse, and some things that you can do to maybe make it a little better. It can sometimes be just enough to help you break even on your spoons. And really, none of them are actually that weird.
Drumming and chanting has been shown to have a measurable, chemical effect on depression.
Libations are an important part of Polytheist practice, but be careful with what you drink, because some choices can make your symptoms worse. Alcohol is a depressant. It may temporarily make you feel better, but alcohol will, in the long term, worsen your depression. Likewise, sugar can make depression worse, so cool it on the fruit juice. Artificial sweeteners are not great for depression , either. Instead, try a nice anti-inflammatory turmeric tea, or maybe coffee, if that works for you.
Gratitude can help ease the symptoms of depression. It actually boosts serotonin in the brain (increasing serotonin is one of the major way drugs help patients with depression and anxiety). If you make giving thanks a major feature of group ritual, everyone is going to feel better — especially those who suffer from depression or anxiety. Also, the gods really seem to like it when you spend time recognizing the good things they do.
Integrating motion into your rituals can release endorphins, and can give your mood a boost. What that looks like will depend upon the individual people involved, but Greeks love processions, and many people are big fans of ecstatic dance, which can be modified for mobility issues and different fitness levels.
None of these things is going to cure you. They are not a replacement for conventional psychiatric care, but every little bit helps.
Taking Stock of the Wreckage
Depression and anxiety lie to you. They tell you that you are worthless, and that no one wants you around. This can impact your filter.
What is filter? Filter is your internal algorithm for interpreting social cues, behavior and language. Filter is shaped by your beliefs about the world. Things that align with your filter are easier to see, and things which do not align with your filter are harder to see. Culture is a major player, but so are your previous experiences, and even your mood. When you are suffering from anxiety or depression, you may feel worthless, and it may be next to impossible for affirming messages of any kind, whether from deities or humans, to get through. Even if you hear them, they don’t feel real.
This does not mean that every person suffering from anxiety or depression is going to be a terrible medium. It is possible to be pro-active in taking stock of your personal biases, and to frequently ask yourself if your beliefs are justified — but this takes spoons. In my case, I had to start feeling better before I could tackle the problem.
Healthy boundaries take bandwidth that you may not have.
When I was depressed, I let people interrupt me, talk down to me, cut in front of me, and otherwise de-prioritize me, because I just didn’t have the energy to do otherwise. Imagine my surprise when, as I recovered, I suddenly started to push back on the unfair treatment and the response from these people was outsized — you’d have thought that I was lighting people on fire, for all they were complaining about it!
The same thing can happen with the spirit world. Boundaries and shields are your way of communicating your “no” to the spirit world. In my case, some of these barriers needed to be rebuilt, and I had to put my foot down a second time with some of the lesser spirits that surround me.
Epilogue: I’m ok, now. 🙂
A combination of good medical care, avoiding things that made my symptoms worse, finding a medication that worked for me, eating well, taking my vitamins (D!!) sustainable and affirming spirituality and gradually increasing my activity level all contributed to putting me back on my feet. I am now more or less back to my keyed-up, neurotic, passionate, cantankerous self.
I have also mostly cleaned up the social and psychic mess that this all caused.
If you are suffering from depression, don’t wait to get help. Take care of yourself. Work together with your mental health professionals. Take your meds. Try anything that might help, and if it helps, even a little, then keep doing it.